Ruthie meets the challenge of the unfamiliar

It’s an old theme on this blog: 6-year-old Ruthie in the comic strip One Big Happy as a constantly entertaining source of efforts to cope with unfamiliar words and larger expressions by assimilating them, in one way or another, to things that are familiar to her. Some examples surveyed in my 2/3/19 posting “Ruthian lexical items in real life”; and then, yesterday, in the posting “Ruthie goes for the donuts”, she understands windchill as Winchell’s (donuts): the unfamiliar element is the technical meteorological term windchill. and Ruthie copes with it by replacing it with a phonologically similar item that’s familiar to her (she’s fond of Winchell’s donuts):

(#1) unfamiliar windchill / familiar Winchell’s

Over the past three years or so, I’ve been accumulating One Big Happy strips in this vein and am now disgorging six of them: a similarity case, in which Ruthie copes with unfamiliar material by treating it as phonologically similar familiar material (as with windchill / Winchell’s); two ambiguity cases, in which unfamiliar material is homophonous with familiar material, so she has to cope with her mistaken interpretation of what she hears; and three more complex cases (one involving portmanteaus, one involving orthographic abbreviations, and one involving Ruthie’s own analogical creation — Ruthie is indeed ingenious).

Some past examples on this blog. Just a sampling of Ruthie’s ingenuity already posted on here.

Two similarity examples. Like unfamiliar windchill / familiar Winchell’s.

— from my 10/22/14 posting “What was that word?”:

(#2) unfamiliar odalisque / familiar odorless

— from my 7/7/15 posting “It’s the glue, Ruthie”:

(#3) This is a complex example: collagen and collages are both unfamiliar words to Ruthie; but collages are apparently not familiar to Ruthie, while the substance collagen is

Ambiguity examples. The phonology is familiar to Ruthie, but not with the meaning she’s confronted with.

— from my 12/3/14 posting “Permanent”:

(#4) unfamiliar permanent ‘lasting or intended to last or remain unchanged indefinitely’ / familiar permanent ‘permanent wave (hairdo)’

Apparently Ruthie has experience of women getting permanents, but hasn’t noticed occurrences of what are, from the point of view of the language as a whole, the general sense of the adjective permanent; it’s all about Ruthie’s world and her experience of English, not about the culture she lives in and the English language in general.

— from my 9/4/19 posting “Ten to one”:

(#5) unfamiliar ten to one (odds in betting) / familiar ten to one (telling time), involving two different senses of to

Ruthie faces six more challenges.

A similarity example.

(#6) unfamiliar azure [æžǝr] the color / familiar as you’re [æžjur] as part of a request for a favor so long as you’re goin’ to the [grocery store] … (in casual speech, with palatalization of the [z] of as before the [j] of you’re)

Observant of Ruthie to have noticed the casual-speech palatalization — a phonetic detail below most people’s conscious perceptions.

An incidental point: my 2/22/20 posting “While you’re up” looks at BACKGROUND CONDITION + REQUEST constructions.

Ambiguity examples.

(#7) unfamiliar adj. hardscrabble ‘requiring hard work and struggle’ in hardscrabble life  / familiar adj. hard ‘difficult’ + the proper noun Scrabble referring to the board game, as the first word in the N + N compound Scrabble life ‘life playing Scrabble’

Nothing, it seems, is simple. There’s a constituent structure ambiguity here, with alternative parsings:

hardscrabble + life OR hard + Scrabble life

This goes hand in hand with a lexical ambiguity in the middle element, which is scrabble (verb or noun) ‘scratch, scramble’ in the unfamiliar reading, but Scrabble (a proper noun denoting a board game) in the reading that’s familiar to Ruthie, because she knows about playing Scrabble (which is, by the way, not in fact a hard life).

(#8) unfamiliar (to Ruthie) noun seal ‘sealing material’ / familiar noun seal the marine mammal — or, in this case, the simulacrum of the animal (oh yes, you need to know about Animal Crackers)

Plays on seal referring to the marine mammal abound in verbal and visual jokes: the official seal of the State of Massachusetts, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. etc.

Complex examples.

(#9) Ruthie aims for the unfamiliar technical term periodicals but also retrieves the familiar (to her) noun pterodactyls, producing the portmanteau periodactyls, and then hopes that the library’s magazines will be about dinosaurs

(#10) Ruthie attempts to concoct some kind of account for the unfamiliar noun plague, tries spelling it out as PLAY plus the letter G — so it looks like an abbreviation, PLAYG. in orthography, which could stand for PLAYGROUND

Yes, monumentally, desperately, over-ingenious.

(#11) unfamiliar verb sauté /sɔté/ (which Ruthie understands as the familiar (and phonologically similar) salt + /e/) ‘cook with salt’), used as a basis for Ruthie to create the analogous verb pepper + /e/ ‘cook with pepper’


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